June 22, 2011

Spaghetti with Pancetta, Mushrooms and Basil

The May 2011 issue of Bon Appetit included a feature article on cooking restaurant-quality pasta dishes, plus several recipes.  The article included several good tips and techniques, including the observation that while home recipes often specify one making the sauce, cooking the pasta separately then serving the sauce atop the pasta, in restaurants the pasta is often cooked until nearly done, then added to the pan or skillet with the sauce along with a bit of extra liquid to finish cooking.  This results in the pasta absorbing some of the flavors from the sauce, and in it being more evenly coated with the sauce.

I decided to try out the article's suggestions, and after studying the sample recipes to get a sense how the cooking techniques were put into action, I tossed together a recipe of my own featuring pancetta, mushrooms and garden-fresh basil. 

I should note that the pancetta I used was La Quercia brand.  La Quercia, based in Norwalk, Iowa, produces a selection of Italian-style dry-cured artisan meats.  The company has gotten a lot of favorable reviews in the food press, including exceptional reviews in Bon Appetit, Cook's Illustrated, Fine Cooking, The New York Times and even Vogue.  In the Des Moines area, La Quercia meats can be found, among other places, in the better Hy-Vee and Dahls supermarkets.  The brand is also available in Whole Foods stores and many premium markets. The pancetta was certainly excellent in this dish.

In fact, the entire dish was excellent.  The rich taste of the pancetta, the earthy flavor of the mushrooms and the savory cheese and fresh basil provided the sauce with tons of flavor.  As promised in the Bon Appetit article, the cooking method resulted in some of this flavor being absorbed into the pasta, as opposed to the pasta simply being topped with flavorful sauce.   This made for a wonderfully satisfying meal. 

I should note that the picture above was taken before I remembered to sprinkle the pasta with the basil and grated cheese.  It would have been great even without those final touches, but adding them pushed it to another level of flavor excellence.

That article turned out to have a lot of great advice, and unless you're already cooking pasta dishes on par with those offered at the better Italian restaurants, I'd strongly recommend tracking down a copy of that issue of Bon Appetit, or at very least the article on pages 136-143. 

Spaghetti with Pancetta, Mushrooms and Basil

yield = 4 servings

2              tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3              ounces pancetta, chopped
1/2           teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2           teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1              medium onion, grated
8              ounces crimini mushrooms, sliced
3              teaspoons minced garlic
1              can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes, pureed
2              teaspoons table salt
12            ounces spaghetti
1/4           cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1              tablespoon butter, chilled
1/4           cup fresh basil, chopped

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering.  Add pancetta and cook, stirring often, until crisp and lightly browned.   Add red pepper flakes and black pepper, stir for 10 seconds, then add onion.  Cook, stirring often, until the onion is starting to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add mushrooms and cook until they release their liquid and release in size. 

When the excess mushroom liquid has cooked off, add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then stir in the the pureed tomato puree.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer.

While the sauce simmers, add table salt and 4 quarts of water to a large pan or stock pot.  Bring to a boil and add the spaghetti.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until 2 minutes prior to the pasta being done, or al dente, per package instructions.  Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. 

Add drained past to the skillet and toss with tongs to coat.  Add the reserved cooking water and cook until the pasta is al dente (about 2 minutes).  Remove from heat.  Add butter and 1/2 of the Pecorino and toss until the cheese melts.   Serve, sprinkling individual servings with basil and the remaining cheese.

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